Amazon’s announcement of three launch contracts totaling 83 flights split across Ariane 6, Vulcan, and New Glenn represents the largest commercial launch block buy in history and will unite Arianespace, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin in a multi-year effort to deploy the Kuiper internet constellation.
The contracts represent unique challenges to some providers and opportunities for others to continue filling out the manifest offered by these heavy-lift rockets.
The contracted missions are in addition to the nine operational Kuiper launches already announced for the Atlas V rocket. The first two test satellites are also not included in the above figures and are scheduled to launch on ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket by Quarter 4 of 2022.
Exactly when launches of operational Kuiper satellites will begin has not been revealed by Amazon, but the constellation will feature a planned total of 3,236 broadband satellites to bring internet access to underserved communities and regions.
Of the 83 missions awarded, Arianespace won 18, all of which will fly on the upcoming Ariane 6 in its A64 configuration.
The A64 variant utilizes the Vulcain 2.1 engine – a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fed engine – on the Lower Liquid Propulsion Module (or core stage) in combination with four side-mounted P120C solid rocket motors.
The rocket also has the Upper Liquid Propulsion Module (or second stage), which features a restartable engine for precise orbital insertion operations.
Speaking to NASASpaceflight about the award, Wiener Kernisan, President of Arianespace, Inc., said, “This is the largest contract we’ve ever signed, and this is really a good boost of confidence for the Ariane 6 on the marketplace.”
For Arianespace, these 18 launches over three years will fit the existing Ariane 6 manifest for institutional commitments to European launch needs.
“The manifest will basically be around the institutional launches that we will have to do for ESA and our partners,” said Kernisan. “And the manifest was constructed like that. We have a few opportunities during the years for commercial customers.”
The ability to process more than one Ariane 6 rocket in the new horizontal integration facility before moving to the pad for launch is an already-in-place operation that will help streamline the amount of time between launches.
Hello #Ariane6! These are just mechanical test articles to practice processing, transfer and integration. The Pathfinder will be on the pad next year and will include a hold down static fire of the Vulcain engine. #Arianespace pic.twitter.com/sEb6DPRxhJ
— Chris G (@ChrisG_SpX) December 22, 2021
Ariane 6 and its ground systems are designed to be able to handle one launch per month.
While all 18 missions will use the Ariane 6 in its A64 configuration, only the first two will use the initial version, with the remaining 16 launches using an upgraded version of A64.
“The big upgrade is the P120C+,” related Kernisan. “That will give us about an additional two tonnes of performance to LEO.”
The P120Cs are the solid rocket motors that will help power Ariane 6 during the first two minutes 10 seconds of launch. Ariane 6 will fly with either two solid rocket motors in its A62 configuration or with four in its A64 configuration.
This booster design is all but certainly set for an upgrade starting in the 2024 to 2025 timeframe when P120Cs will be lengthened by one meter to hold 14 t more propellant than the originals.
These will be called P120C+ and will allow for increased payload capacity on the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rocket lines.
While the Kuiper announcement states this changeover as the definitive plan, the P120C+ upgrade has not yet received full approval, which is expected later this summer.
Overall, Ariane 6 is on pace for a first flight at the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023 — with the end of 2022 being the current target.
A full static fire test will be conducted over the summer before the first flight a few months later.
United Launch Alliance
The 38 launches of Kuiper won by ULA represent the largest single-contract buy in the company’s history.
It surpasses the 36 mission block buy from the U.S. Air Force in 2011.
These 38 launches for ULA will utilize the upcoming Vulcan rocket, which will fly in its most-powerful, six-solid rocket motor configuration for the Kuiper missions.
ULA previously won nine Kuiper launches on the Atlas V rocket, bringing their total to 47 missions for Amazon.
However, ULA will need more than one Vulcan Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) in Florida to meet the flight mandated by this award as well as keep pace with their other customers.
In a press release, ULA’s Chris Ellerhorst, director of Strategy, Business Development, and Sales, commented on this plan for three MLPs, saying, “In addition to the launches, this partnership includes substantial investments made by both companies in high-rate production, launch vehicle improvements, and launch infrastructure to support Amazon’s long-term launch needs, which is great for the U.S. aerospace industry and supply chain.”
“We are honored to be entrusted with the majority of Amazon’s launches with a total of 47 missions, including the nine Atlas launches already on contract,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO.
Our Project Kuiper team just secured enough launches to send majority of their low Earth orbit satellites into space over five years. 🛰️
This is a major step toward bringing fast, affordable broadband to un(der)served communities. https://t.co/HtZlyIT59Z
— Amazon News (@amazonnews) April 5, 2022
Before the Kuiper missions, Vulcan will need to start flight operations. Presently, the BE-4 engines from Blue Origin are one of the crucial items for getting Vulcan to its first flight.
Blue Origin said in a statement to NASASpaceflight on April 6 that they have “made critical progress on [the] engines. The engine program continues to move along toward engine qualification. We’ve been working closely with ULA throughout this process and are on track to deliver flight engines by mid-year, in time for their first launch later this year.”
A successful wet dress campaign with the Vulcan first stage pathfinder has already taken place to prove out the launch pad’s new fueling systems and provide ULA teams the opportunity to work with liquid methane, something no ULA rocket has used before.
At present, Vulcan is slated to launch on its debut mission with Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander in the second half of 2022.
In all, Blue Origin won 12 missions for Kuiper on its New Glenn. But this contract differed from the others.
In addition to the 12 confirmed missions, Amazon’s contract with Blue Origin includes the option for 15 additional flights for the constellation.
This type of option is not unheard of, especially for large constellations that will need to account for replenishment or additions to the approved total number of satellites.
Regarding the cadence that will be needed from New Glenn for these missions, Blue Origin said in response to NASASpaceflight inquiries that “We have extensive redundancy in our fleet and operations, and we are planning on having four first stages very early in our flight program.”
“We have full confidence in our committed launch cadence.”
New Glenn’s first stage is designed to land downrange on the specially redesigned ship named Jacklyn, after Jeff Bezos’ mother. The boosters would then be brought back to Florida for refurbishment and reuse.
Further, Blue Origin added that they are making significant progress on guiding New Glenn toward its first flight and that New Glenn’s launch dates for all its contracted missions are being discussed with various customers.
One thing this contract will help with but not change is the overall certification of New Glenn to launch sensitive and high-priority science missions for various U.S. government agencies.
Blue Origin said, “This contract does not change our certification plans with our government customers. Blue Origin continues to work with our NASA and USSF partners on New Glenn certification activities.”
“These missions will provide additional opportunity for government insight into the New Glenn systems through their fleet surveillance processes.”
New Glenn’s first flight is currently expected to occur no earlier than 2023 from SLC-36 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
(Lead image: The three rockets awarded the 83 Kuiper mission launches. Credit: Amazon)